"'Something Mechanical Encrusted on the Living': Modernity, Embodiment, and Empathy in American Slapstick Film, 1895–1929"
McColl, Kimberly M
This dissertation argues that slapstick film’s conventions, including the gag, humiliation and violence, and comic business, produce the screen figure body-object, which operates as the substrate and the cause of slapstick. Slapstick creates body-objects that are passive, inept and failing, or active and successful. I contend that industrial and economic modernization in the United States increased the need for perceptual learning, a process through which the subject develops the ability to process new percepts, creating a new sensorium that responds to modernity’s pressures through new attentional abilities. Slapstick models how attention should be allocated both inside and outside the exhibition space. The slapstick viewer is not a spectator because to be a spectator is to be isolated and silent, whereas the slapstick viewer participates in a collective viewing position. Slapstick reception focuses on the viewer’s body because slapstick film generates laughter, a bodily response that connects the individual viewer to other viewers within the exhibition space, with the screen figure as the pivot. Slapstick evokes four kinds of laughter: superior laughter, the laughter of analogy and recognition, laughter resulting from incongruity, and laughter resulting from release of tension. Viewers feel empathy toward each other though a direct encounter with the other. They also feel empathy both toward the screen figure that exhibits pain and humiliation and toward the screen figure playing the gag, a kind of empathy that involves mirror neurons, which fire both when a subject commits an action and when the subject sees that action committed. Finally, they experience empathy toward the film as an art form with which they cooperate to produce meaning.